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December 11, 2009 1:50 PM

We Should Count All Bandwidth Equally - Up And Down

One of my biggest pet peeves in broadband debates is the over-emphasis on download speeds and the lack of sufficient attention being paid to upload speeds.

When talking about bandwidth goals, they're download first, upload second. When providers are advertising the capacity of their networks, it's the download number in big font, with upload hidden elsewhere. Often times this devolves into people referring to broadband only based on its download capacity.

This causes a serious problem for consumer awareness about upstream capacity. If providers with inadequate upstream capacity aren't talking about it then the average consumer may not realize the difference in the value they're receiving for their broadband buck, which calls into question the efficacy of a market where customers aren't making informed decisions.

I'm not the first to point out the need to strengthen consumer protections relative to truth in broadband advertising, but I want to make a suggestion that should help resolve this specific issues of the marginalization of upstream capacity: I think we should count all bandwidth equally when defining the service level that broadband delivers.

What I mean by this is simple. Rather than allowing providers to tout their downstream speeds in bold and hide their upstream, they should be required to most prominently display the total bandwidth they're providing. So if a provider offers a service that promises 50Mbps down and 5Mbps up then they'd have to say their broadband service is offering 55Mbps of total bandwidth.

Providers could still have the 50mbps down number in bold and try to hide the 5Mbps up, but at least this way consumers would start to have a better understanding of the true overall value that they're receiving.

Doing this should help networks that offer symmetrical or near-symmetrical speeds to differentiate what they have to offer. For example, in Lafayette, where Cox is offering a DOCSIS 3.0-enabled cable broadband service at 50 down and 5 up, or 55Mbps total, LUS would describe its top end product of a 50Mbps symmetrical package as offering 100Mbps of total bandwidth.

While I'm not one to rush to have government intervene in private markets, I do think there are times when government can play an important role in setting the rules of the road to protect the interests of consumers.

And one specific, small step that government can take in the right direction is if to mandate that all bandwidth be treated equally and require broadband to be defined by the total capacity it delivers, not just what it delivers downstream.

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Comments (1)

You need to proceed carefully on the symmetry question, for a couple of reasons. Bear in mind that Internet access networks, that is everything to do with the Internet outside of Internet Exchanges, are essentially hierarchies that disaggregate on the way down and aggregate on the way up. The only way to have symmetric end-to-end service is to allocate much more bandwidth on the upstream side than on the downstream side; that's how to overcome the differential effects of aggregation vs. disaggregation. When confronting the choice between allocating a wavelength in a fiber for rarely-used upstream vs heavily used downstream, it's generally more beneficial to assign it do downstream, even if you assume symmetrical use at the end system.

The Internet is a highly symmetrical system at the Exchange, and must be because the consumer's download is the server's upload, but it can never be symmetrical for the residential user unless the access network itself has much more upstream than downstream capacity. And no network operator is ever going to provision the access network that way, not even UTOPIA.

Posted by Richard Bennett on December 11, 2009 4:46 PM

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